Visitors to your ancient land stand in awe before the ruins of the civilisation upon which all the other civilisations of Europe were built.    We stand before the Parthenon and imagine its splendour twenty-four hundred years ago, before the ravages of time, war and acid rain.  We visit Delphi and wish that we had an oracle whom we could consult about the issues of our day.  We would welcome even ambiguous answers to some of the dilemmas that confront us.  We go to Olympia and recall the tradition started two thousand seven hundred and eighty years ago  – the tradition that all the world will soon be celebrating once again when the Olympic games return to Greece.


It is fitting at such a time to consider what meaning the Olympic tradition has for us today in our rapidly changing and globalising world.  In particular, what is the significance for us of the ancient tradition of the Olympic truce – the tradition that for seven days before and after the games and for their entire duration there would be a universal cessation of hostilities between all the nations of the Hellenic world?


What chance would we have of appealing to all the conflicting forces in the world to observe such a truce for the Athens Olympiad?  Would there be any possibility of hostilities ceasing in Iraq?  Would the rockets and mortars be silenced?  Would ordinary Iraqi citizens be able to pursue their daily lives without the fear of being caught in crossfire between insurgents and coalition forces? Would bulldozers cease to destroy Palestinian homes in Gaza?  Could the skies above Ramallah be cleared of Israeli gunships?   Would people in Israel be able to board buses and drink coffee at sidewalk cafes secure in the knowledge that they would not be blown apart by suicide bombers?

What would happen in the distant reaches of the Darfur region of Sudan?  Would the ethnic cleansing stop?  Would the eyes of the international community be opened to the present threat of mass killings?  Or would we all wait until after the event to pick over the corpses as we did in Rwanda a few years ago?


The question that is inevitably raised by the idea of an Olympic Truce is – why just for a few weeks?   If it is judged good for nations to set aside their differences for a few weeks – why then should they not be prepared to put aside warfare, destruction and killing indefinitely?  Is it not better for young men and women to compete with one another on the athletic field or the wrestling ring than to kill and maim one another?  Or is warfare in our nature?  Is conflict our destiny?  Should we therefore be contented with a few weeks of peace and respite once every four years?  Is this the best that we human beings can do?


There is a tendency to be pessimistic about human nature – and to conclude that we have made little real progress in the twenty-eight centuries since the first Olympic Games.   It often seems that we continue to be subject to the same follies and vices as those that led to the decline of so many civilisations after they had attained glorious heights.


Certainly, no century in the broad sweep of history was as bloody as the last century.   At least 60 million human beings were killed in wars between 1900 and 2000.   Forty million more perished as a result of disastrous policies implemented by ruthless ideological governments.  One has but to think of the collectivisation of the farms in the Soviet Union; of the Cultural Revolution in China; and the recent famine in North Korea.


How easily the words slip off our tongues – sixty million, a hundred million!  These were people – not statistics.   Each of them was a mother’s child; each cherished dreams of a peaceful and secure life; each had a unique perception and understanding of the universe.  They did not deserve to suffer cruelty; they should not have died unnecessarily.  This is not what ordinary people want.


I am reminded of the incident that occurred in the trenches of the Western Front on a Christmas Day during the First World War.  Quite spontaneously, German and British soldiers left there trenches and gathered tentatively in the no-man’s land that divided them.  There, in the snow, they began to play soccer.  It was a kind of impromptu Olympic Truce – but, of course, it greatly displeased the generals and the politicians on both sides.  So, after their brief respite, the armies returned to their trenches and subsided once again into the senseless and relentless process of killing, maiming and gassing one another.


The past century witnessed the passage of worse despots and more cruel tyrants than any other period in human history.


And yet it was also the century in which mankind undoubtedly made material and political progress far beyond the dreams of our forefathers – or, indeed, their ability to dream.  In 1900 there were only 13 liberal democracies throughout the world; by the end of the century there were more than 70.   The material circumstances of the majority of the people in the world also improved beyond recognition.   Between 1960 and 1990 the percentage of the world’s population living in absolute poverty declined from two-thirds to one third – although, because of population growth, the total number of poor had hardly changed.


In the successful market economies, a large percentage of the population has attained a level of material well being that would have been unimaginable a hundred years ago.  It has been said that the average German worker now has a much higher real standard of living than the Emperor Charles V.   The Emperor may have had palaces and jewels and golden carriages – but the he would probably have been quite happy to change them for good medical and dental care, the enormous access to information, entertainment and travel that we now enjoy, and a late model Volkswagen.


In other areas we have also made great progress.


When the 20th century opened there was still a widely held view in many European countries that war was a positive – and even a necessary – political reality.   Those illusions vanished in the trenches of the First World War and with the Atomic bombs that ended World War II.   In 1900 racism and chauvinism were deeply ingrained and acceptable.  European nations regarded themselves as being axiomatically superior to other races and thought that it was perfectly natural that they should rule over other peoples in their far-flung imperial possessions.  By the time the twentieth century closed, all such illusions and conceits had been blown away forever.


What are the roots of ongoing conflict in our globalising world? It would appear that there are a number of underlying causes.


The first is poverty.

Devastating civil wars have in the past decade wracked eleven of the thirty poorest countries -including Rwanda, Burundi, Afghanistan, Sudan, Liberia, Somalia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo -.  On the other hand, none of the twenty richest countries have experienced serious internal conflict.


The second cause of conflict is the absence of democratic institutions and basic human rights.  There is a direct link between democracy and economic development.  Only a few countries in the world with per capita incomes of less than US $ 1,000 are full democracies, while nearly all of the twenty richest countries – those with per capita incomes above US $ 20 000 – are liberal democracies (the few exceptions being a number of oil-rich states).  This should not come as a surprise:  it is difficult for democracy to take root in countries with low levels of education; inadequate social services and poor communications.  On the other hand, it is almost impossible to develop a successful consumer economy without a well-educated population; the freedom of action and choice that free markets require; and effective mass communications.


There is thus an undeniable link between levels of economic development, democratisation and peace.   Again, there is reason for this.   The poorest countries have not yet developed the political mechanisms to manage and resolve conflicts.   Those involved in such conflicts, have little ability to choose or control their destinies, but are simply swept along by the tide of war.   Citizens of modern first world societies are, by contrast, well-informed about the issues confronting their countries; they are protected by the law and, through their political representation, are able to choose whether they wish to become involved in conflict or not.   Only in the most extreme cases will they accept the necessity for war.  Moreover, every aspect of modern conflicts is covered on a minute to minute by the media.  Under these circumstances it is difficult to romanticise war.   It is perhaps for such reasons that there is no case where one true democracy has ever gone to war against another.   Democracy is thus a strong force for peace.


The fourth cause of conflict is the inability of people from different, cultural, ethnic  and religious backgrounds to coexist peacefully in the same societies.   There were, at the turn of the millennium, some 27 serious conflicts in the world.  25 of these were within countries – primariliy between people from different ethnic, cultural and religious groups.   Just think about the conflicts in Rwanda and Burundi; in the Democratic Republic of the Congo; in Israel/Palestine; in the Sudan; in Kashmir; in Kosovo.  Not only do these wars cause unacceptable suffering – they often also make it impossible for the countries involved to proceed with social and economic development and to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty, under-development and conflict.


What can be done about such conflicts in a globalising world in which we are all increasingly interdependent?


We need stability – because stability is the prerequisite for economic ans social development.  We need economic and social development because they create the environment in which democratic institutions and human rights can take root.   We need democratic institutions and human rights because they provide the mechanisms and security through which difficult and inevitable clashes of interest can be resolved.  And we toleration, communication and mutual respect to enable people from different religious, ethnic and cultural communities to coexist.


How can the Olympic spirit help us to promote a climate for peace in our globalising world?


One of the most notable aspects of the Olympic spirit  is, perhaps its tradition of universality.  The old Olympic tradition encompassed the entire Hellenic community regardless of the great differences that existed between them.


The Olympic spirit was also characterised by law and honour.  Competitors were required to play by the rules and to respect the truce which was very rarely breached.  The Lacedaemonians were banned from participating in the Games after they attacked a town called Lepreum.  They claimed that they had done so before the truce was announced – but nevertheless they were required to pay a heavy fine.


The Olympic spirit was characterised the celebration of vigour and life and by the pursuit of individual excellence. The names of great athletes have come down to us over the millennia.


The games encompassed and required the keenest competition – but competition within a clear framework of laws and rules.


Finally, the games were characterised by the peace between peoples that was ensured by the Olympic Truce.


These qualities of the Olympic spirit are also the qualities that we will require in a globalising world.


We need to work toward a universal and inclusive system in which all states – great and small – are welcome and can participate on the basis of equality.


We also need a globalisation process that will be encompassed and defined by clear laws and rules.  These rules should not be determined by the powerful and wealthy alone and must not work solely to their advantage.  We cannot tolerate a system in which developed nations demand free access to the markets of developing countries – while they continue to skew global agricultural markets by paying their own farmers enormous subsidies.  The United States and the European Union pay their farmers subsidies of more than US350 billion each year.  This is more than six times the total aid they pay to developing countries.  The irony is that if the subsidies were removed and if  developing countries were able to compete fairly in global agricultural markets – the one area in which they really can compete  – they probably would not require foreign aid.


Like the Olympic games of old, globalisation will involve fierce competition.   The laurels will go to those – rich or poor – who have trained the hardest; who are the fittest and who most effectively pursue excellence.  Competition is the engine of all natural and social evolution.  In a globalising world we must ensure that such competition is fair and peaceful.


Finally, globalisation must take place within a framework of peace and security.  We need a global Olympic Truce that will extend not only for the period of the Olympic games – but for the period between them as well.


Will it not be possible for the organisers of the forthcoming Olympiad in Athens to emulate their ancestors and proclaim to the four corners of the world the commencement of a new Olympic Truce?  Can they not send envoys to conflicting parties throughout the world and plead with them to lay their arms aside, to start with, for the period of these Olympics?


Can they not send emissaries to the government of the Sudan and the rebel leaders in the south and ask them to bring peace to Darfur region so that the inhabitants can return to their homes?


Can they not ask the leaders of the Palestinian factions to cease their desperate acts of violence against Israeli civilians, to start with just for the duration of these games?  Can they not go to Prime Minister Sharon and plead with him to switch off the bulldozers and to ground his helicopter gunships – just for a few weeks this summer?  Can they not go to Bagdad and appeal to the leaders of the coalition forces and to the leaders of the Iraqi uprising to observe the Olympic Truce?  After all, they claim to want the same thing;  the withdrawal of foreign forces and the establishment of a free and democratic Iraqi government.


Anybody who proposes such a plea unfortunately runs the risk  of being regarded as naïve and perhaps even foolish.  But I disagree.  Ten years ago the people of my country proved that it is possible to solve bitter, longstanding and intractable conflicts through peaceful negotiations, compromise and goodwill.  If we could do it – if black and white South Africans could find one another across the divisions of apartheid and of history – is it really impossible for other peoples locked in bitter conflict to do so?  Our task in South Africa will be to continue to work night and day to ensure that our young democracy grows and flourishes.


Cynics and sceptics might say that in the real world the concept of an Olympic Truce is a hopeless ideal.    I would like to remind them of this:   in the long run it is great ideas and ideals that endure.


What remains of the wonders of Greece’s past?  The gold and ivory covered statue of Athena that once stood in the Parthenon is gone.  The temple of Diana at Ephesus collapsed millennia ago.  The Colossus of Rhodes lies at the bottom of the Aegean Sea.  The Acropolis in Athens still stands but the once glorious Parthenon has been reduced to ruins by the passage of time, by war and pollution. What remain as fresh and true as the day that they were first uttered are the great ideas and ideals upon which Greek civilisation was based.


No-one has ever expressed the virtue and essence of democracy better than the great Athenian leader Pericles did, in his funeral oration, more than twenty-four centuries ago, when he said:


“Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands, not of a minority but of the whole people.  When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses.”


Many citizens in modern democracies have become cynical, apathetic and disillusioned and have withdrawn from active involvement in public affairs.   However, as Pericles said, public involvement in the affairs of the state is crucial for democracies.  He said:


“We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”


Our material culture continues to amaze us with its ability to churn out remarkable gadgets and newer and more marvellous ways of communicating and accessing information – and yet it seems less and less capable of producing beauty and meaning.  Pericles’ view of Athens’ material success was quite different:


“Our love of what is beautiful does not lead to extravagance; our love of the things of the mind does not make us soft.  We regard wealth as something  to be properly used, rather than something to boast about.”


It is ideas such as these that endure – and ideals such as those encompassed by the spirit of the Olympic games that will continue to inspire us and guide us in our globalising world.


Let the Olympic Truce be proclaimed throughout the world – and let it never end!


(Perhaps you might want to repeat this in Greek?)